All Over the Place: Majestic Museums
Issue 10: The Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches Museums
If you’re thinking of a nice place to eat, museums probably don’t come to mind. Many museum visitors will leave a museum in search of food elsewhere to avoid what they fear will be overpriced, disappointing snacks served in a cafe with as much ambience as a middle school cafeteria.
The cafes in Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum challenge that stereotype.
Vienna was the home of the fabulously wealthy Hapsburg dynasty, which ruled over large parts of Europe for centuries. Over time the family amassed an enormous collection of treasure, art and natural history specimens, and they opened a pair of museums to show off their wealth. The Naturhistorisches Museum is a natural history museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum houses art and assorted treasures, and they both have cafes with grand splendor and lower prices than I expected.
You could have no interest in any of the objects in the museums and still have a great visit. The interior decor of both museums is extravagantly decorated with paintings and design flourishes, so much so that all of the objects in their collections could be removed and I would still recommend a visit.
The Naturhistorisches Museum does feel like an old museum in parts, but any stuffiness is overwhelmed by the opulent decorations, and the rooms that have not been updated are a reminder of how simply seeing birds from other parts of Europe was once a major draw. Unlike some natural history museums it doesn’t have much in the way of dinosaur displays, but it really shines in its collection of animals gathered from all corners of the earth. From the long-assumed-extinct coelacanth to the recently extinct thylacine to the comically large Japanese giant salamander to the secretary bird, it has a wonderful menagerie of animals you’d have a heck of a time seeing in the wild or even in a zoo.
If obscure, exotic dead animals are not your cup of tea, you’d probably prefer the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with works from the Old Masters and decadent curiosities.
While centuries old automatons are neat, my favorite pieces were Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath” and Teniers’ “Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Gallery at Brussels,” a painting of a collection of paintings that was purchased by the Hapsburgs and now hang in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
"While my interest in natural history has added very little to my sum of achievement, it has added immeasurably to my sum of enjoyment in life."
- Teddy Roosevelt